NFL Team Assessment

As we prepare for NFL Week one, here is one reason all 32 teams can be excited for the 2018 campaign.

Arizona Cardinals – David Johnson’s return

After a breakout season in 2016, with over 2,100 total yards, 20 total touchdowns and 80 receptions, a Week 1 wrist injury sidelined Johnson for the season. He reported to training camp on time, amid talk of a new contract entering the final year of his rookie. But most importantly, he’s healthy and ready to go.
The Cardinals have Sam Bradford and rookie Josh Rosen under center this year, with Rosen in line to play plenty given Bradford’s injury history. A good running game will be a rookie quarterback’s best friend, so say nothing of Johnson’s pass-catching prowess as essentially No. 2 in the pecking order for targets behind Larry Fitzgerald.
Arizona may not win a ton of games this season, but a healthy and productive Johnson is a promising proposition that can’t be ignored.

Atlanta Falcons – The talented Mr. Ridley

The Falcons are a perennial playoff contender, and they’ll be in the thick of things again this year as long as their key players are healthy. But some reinforcements are needed to take a big step, and perhaps close the deal if they reach the Super Bowl for the second time in three years come February.
Ridley was the most-NFL ready wide receiver in this year’s draft class, and He will be used as a kickoff and punt return man. He’s in a position to succeed immediately in a significant role no matter what, and thus be a difference-making player for the Falcons.

Baltimore Ravens – Lamar Jackson

Joe Flacco has been a mediocre to bad quarterback for a few years now. With an eye toward the future without the former Super Bowl MVP, the Ravens shrewdly moved back into the first round of April’s draft to get Jackson.
The possibilities for using Jackson are really only limited by the imagination of coordinator Marty Mornhinweg and the rest of the offensive coaching staff.

Buffalo Bills – The Josh Allen era

Since Jim Kelly retired, the Bills have struggled to find stability and consistency at the most important position in the NFL. Tyrod Taylor, who’s hardly flawless but is underrated, was clearly not the guy the franchise wanted to commit to long-term.
The musical quarterback chairs in free agency left the Bills with the last seat to fill, and they signed A.J. McCarron. But he’s the quintessential bridge quarterback until proven otherwise, as the Bills traded up to get Josh Allen and automatically anointed him as their latest quarterback of the future.
But Allen has very little, or any, barrier to immediate playing time. After starting training camp as the No. 3 quarterback, he quickly stood out and may wind up starting Week 1.

Carolina Panthers – More for McCaffrey?

Christian McCaffrey took his multi-faceted utility from his days at Stanford right into the NFL last year, with a team-high 80 receptions (on a team-high 113 targets), 117 carries and 22 punt returns.
But McCaffrey struggled to get on track as a runner, as he averaged just 3.7 yards per carry. He did finish strongly though, averaging 4.7 yards per carry over the final eight games with a slight increase in volume (8.5 carries per game; 6.1 carries per game over the first eight games).
McCaffrey, even with some added weight coming out of the offseason, is an undersized running back. But he’s an easy bet for more a lot more carries in his second season, while keeping a prominent role in the passing game. For the Panthers, and new coordinator Norv Turner, more McCaffrey is an exciting proposition that should bring the offense up a notch this year.

Chicago Bears – The Mitchell (Trubisky) Plan

Just like the Philadelphia Eagles did with Carson Wentz after his rookie season, the Bears made surrounding Trubisky with talent a top priority this offseason. First came new head coach Matt Nagy, the former Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator, and former Oregon head coach Mark Helfrich was hired as offensive coordinator.
Then wide receivers Allen Robinson and Taylor Gabriel were added in free agency, along with tight end Trey Burton. Then the second round of the draft brought guard James Daniels and wide receiver Anthony Miller.

Cincinnati Bengals – Joe Mixon

By pretty much all measures, Mixon’s 2017 rookie season was a big disappointment. He led the Bengals in rushing (626 yards), but he averaged just 3.5 yards per carry after starting out overweight in rookie minicamp and never really getting down to a better body mass.
Mixon did finish on a higher note though, averaging 4.3 yards per carry over his final five games with at least 18 carries three times over that span. He will continue success.
Cincinnati also made some moves to help their offensive line this offseason, getting offensive tackle Cordy Glenn via trade from the Buffalo Bills and drafting center Billy Price in the first round.

Cleveland Browns – Baker Mayfield

He may not start Week 1, as Browns’ head coach Hue Jackson remains committed to Tyrod Taylor. But the franchise’s latest carrier of hope for the future is Mayfield, the No. 1 pick in April’s draft and the 2017 Heisman Trophy winner.
Mayfield straddles the line between confident and cocky, and he’s saying the right things about accepting a backup role at this point. But as Jackson stays behind Taylor as the starter that will change.

Dallas Cowboys – A full season of Zeke

The prospect of a suspension for a domestic violence hung over Elliott and the Cowboys last year, and it finally came to fruition in Week 10 after he gave up the fight with the league office. The team went 3-3 over the six games Elliott missed, with a 6-4 record when he played.
A fully focused Elliott, and the residual effect of his presence on quarterback Dak Prescott and entire offense, opens up some realistic expectations for the Cowboys this year. Just knowing Elliott will be available for all 16 games, barring injury of course but without the cloud of a looming suspension, is a huge reason for optimism and excitement in Dallas.

Denver Broncos – Making the Case

Since Peyton Manning hit the wall in 2015, the Broncos have struggled to find consistent, or anything resembling high level, quarterback play. Former first-round pick Paxton Lynch doesn’t look like the answer, as he couldn’t even beat out Trevor Siemian for the starting job in either of the last two training camps.
Enter Case Keenum, who signed a two-year, $26 million deal with the Broncos in March. He went 11-3 as the starter for the Minnesota Vikings last year, after Sam Bradford suffered another knee injury in Week 1.
That said, Denver’s situation is very similar to the one Keenum succeeded in last year. One of the best defenses in the league. The primary difference is Keenum is clearly the starter for the first time in his career.
Keenum doesn’t have to be one of the best quarterbacks in the league this year. But the prospect of better than “sub-optimal” play from the position is an automatic reason for the Broncos to be excited.

Detroit Lions – “The Patriot Way” coming to the Motor City

After four seasons (albeit three with a winning record) with the patently uninteresting Jim Caldwell as head coach, Matt Patricia is coming in after serving as the New England Patriots defensive coordinator for six seasons. Overall, Patricia worked under Bill Belichick from 2004-2017. Now he’ll try to bring some version of “The Patriot Way” to Detroit.
For what it’s worth, Patricia has essentially been hand-picked by Lions general manager Bob Quinn due to their mutual history with the Patriots’ organization. If Patricia can learn from his fellow members of the Belichick coaching tree, and have his own style to go with what he learned in New England, the Lions could have a lot of success. The decision to keep Jim Bob Cooter in place as offensive coordinator, stands out as the kind of “status quo” decision Mangini, for example, would not have made.
If nothing else, Patricia should bring personality to the table. As a refreshing opposite to Caldwell, but not all the way to the Jim Schwartz end of that spectrum, the Lions and their fans can be excited about Patricia this year.

Green Bay Packers – The return of Aaron Rodgers

The idea of a great quarterback being a “great deodorant” (h/t to John Madden) was on full display in Green Bay last year. They started the season 4-1, before Rodgers suffered a fractured collarbone against the rival Minnesota Vikings early in Week 6 and essentially missed 10 games. They proceeded to go 3-8 after Rodgers was sidelined, with the obvious drop-off to Brett Hundley under center.
Rodgers is back to take his place as arguably the most talented quarterback in the NFL this year. The defense might improve some, with a new coordinator (Mike Pettine) and a fresh approach. But any excitement about (or hope for) another (overdue) Super Bowl run with Rodgers under center rests firmly on the healthy return of the quarterback.

Houston Texans – A full season of Deshaun Watson

Somehow, Texans’ head coach Bill O’Brien remained steadfast through the 2017 preseason and Tom Savage started Week 1 last year over Watson. But that of course did not last long, as the two-time Heisman Trophy finalist finished that season opener and proved he should have had the starting job all along.
Over his six starts, Watson averaged over 308 yards per game with 20 total touchdowns (18 passing). Project that over 16 games, and you land on 4,259 passing yards, 675 rushing yards and 48 passing touchdowns.
There’s a line to be drawn somewhere in terms of when and how much he runs, but Watson has said he won’t change his style of play. As they look to rebound quickly from a dismal 4-12 campaign, the possibilities attached to having a healthy Watson in place all season seem endless for the Texans in 2018.

Indianapolis Colts – Any Luck is better than no Luck at all

After shoulder surgery in January of 2017, and rampant optimism for a long time, the Colts had to do without Andrew Luck for all of last season. Progress has been slow, but the No, 1 overall pick in 2012 is on the right track after admitting he probably rushed things at times a year ago.
Luck missing at least nine games in two of the last three seasons has exposed a talent-barren roster in Indianapolis. General manager Chris Ballard is in his second season of the rebuild, and having Luck back under center may accelerate that process a bit.

Jacksonville Jaguars – A better Bortles?

On the back of an elite defense and a solid running game, the Jacksonville Jaguars won a division title and made it the AFC Championship Game with Blake Bortles as a passenger. But he was solid in the playoffs, particularly in terms of turnovers (zero) and had more passing yards than Tom Brady (293 vs. 290) in the conference title game.
Bortles had surgery on his right wrist in January, and he recently said he’s without pain in that wrist for the first time since 2016. That stands to lead to better accuracy, and a cleaner spiral for receivers to catch.
The Jaguars have Super Bowl aspirations this year. If they get back to the conference title game in January and finish the job this time, it may be because Bortles played well all season and performed well again on that stage. If that’s not a reason to be excited in Jacksonville, I don’t know what is.

Kansas City Chiefs – A new quarterback

The Chiefs put the writing on the wall for Alex Smith by trading up to get Patrick Mahomes in the first round of the 2017 draft. Mahomes was given the keys to Andy Reid’s offense as Smith was traded to the Washington Redskins.
Mahomes will surely have some ups and down in his first year as an NFL starter, when the games and snaps count the most, with a pretty tough early season schedule to boot. But his upside far exceeds Smith’s, and the Chiefs are clearly excited about Mahomes being their quarterback of the future starting in 2018.

Los Angeles Chargers – A wide open division

After an 0-4 start last year, the Chargers won six of their last seven games to finish 9-7 and just outside of a Wild Card spot. The perpetual underachievers have stability at the most important position on the field, as Philip Rivers has not missed a start since taking over the job in 2006, and the roster is filled with talent.
The Chargers have the most talent on both sides of the ball in their division, and quite possibly in the entire AFC. If the injury Gods cooperate, a division title is in the offing and it could be decisive.

Miami Dolphins – Ryan Tannehill’s return

After suffering a partially torn left ACL late in the 2016 regular season and opting not to have surgery, with an eye on returning for a playoff game, Tannehill re-tore the same ligament during training camp last year and missed the entire season. The Dolphins brought in Jay Cutler as a late fallback, with the expected overall result, and their backup plan this year behind Tannehill (Brock Osweiler, David Fales and Bryce Petty) actually looks worse.
In some respect, perhaps tied to his lengthy absence, it’s hard to believe Tannehill is 30 years old. The ship may have already sailed on his ever becoming a top-flight quarterback, befitting of his status as a former top-10 pick. But with little to confidently lean on, Tannehill’s return to full strength is a beacon for hope and excitement for the Dolphins heading into the 2018 season,

Minnesota Vikings – Captain Kirk (Cousins) coming aboard

What do you do to top a 13-3 regular season and a run to the NFC Championship Game (albeit with a highly disappointing end result) ? Sign Kirk Cousins to a full guaranteed three-year, $84 million deal as an upgrade over Case Keenum at quarterback.
A tougher schedule all but assures the Vikings won’t go 13-3 again this year. But Cousins’s arrival is a reason for great excitement this year, and if he delivers at least one Super Bowl appearance at some point over his three-year deal everybody will be happy.
New England Patriots – A well-oiled Brady/Belichick machine
There are some rumored cracks in the foundation, rooted in trainer Alex Guerrero’s involvement with players beyond Tom Brady and last year’s trade of Jimmy Garoppolo. But until further notice, the Patriots are at the top of the heap as a Super Bowl contender year and year out.
Rooting for a team that’s so good every year probably gets boring for Patriots’ fans at a certain point.
The end could come as soon as after this year for Brady and/or Belichick, particularly if the Patriots win the Super Bowl. But having the most accomplished coach-quarterback duo in league history in place is still the No. 1 reason for excitement in Foxboro for 2018.

New Orleans Saints – A gently aging Drew Brees

A vastly improved Saints’ defense, and a running game that clicked, yielded lows almost across the board for Brees since he came to New Orleans in 2006. But he led the league in completion percentage by a good margin (72 percent), had the second-best passer rating in the league (103.9) and led the league in yards per attempt (8.1).
As we saw with Peyton Manning in 2015, at the almost exactly same age Brees is now (literally down to months and days), the wall can come quickly and without warning for older quarterbacks. But the Saints shouldn’t be worried too much about that, since Brees doesn’t have a past serious neck injury that threatens to completely take away his fastball at any moment.
As long as Brees is under center, the Saints have a chance to make a deep playoff run. So for the team and its fans, he’s the No. 1 reason to be excited for the new season.

New York Giants – Saquon Barkley

Last season was pretty much a disaster all the way around for the Giants, amid some key injuries (Odell Beckham Jr.), the awkward end to Eli Manning’s consecutive start streak and the midseason firing of overmatched head coach Ben McAdoo.
Barkley was a multi-purpose weapon in college, accounting for 53 total touchdowns (43 rushing, eight receiving, two kickoff returns) while averaging 5.7 yards per carry, 11.7 yards per catch and 6.5 yards per offensive touch overall. He also set the NFL Combine on fire, with a 4.4 40-yard dash and off the charts athletic measurements.
If you’re looking for a team to bet on for a rebound this year, the Giants are a solid pick. There’s a new head coach in place, but the No. 1 source for buzz and excitement in Big Blue country for 2018 is clearly Barkley.

New York Jets – Dawn of the Sam Darnold era

Pretty much since Joe Namath, the Jets have lacked stability and/or a bright future under center. The latest anointed great glimmer of hope is Darnold, the No. 3 pick in April’s draft. He didn’t sign until a few days into training camp, but the USC product got some first-team practice reps immediately upon arrival and has a “fair shot” to earn the starting job.
Darnold may not turn into a star immediately, with a serious lack of talent around him. But the anticipation surrounding him is plenty enough to create excitement in Jets’ camp (and into his rookie season until further notice), as the team tries to finally get the most important position on the field right for the long haul.

Oakland Raiders – Jon Gruden Is back

The Raiders had a long-awaited resurgence in 2016, with 12 regular season wins and a division title. But things fell right back down in 2017, with a highly disappointing 6-10 campaign. A four-game losing streak to end the season sealed head coach Jack Del Rio’s fate.
But Jon Gruden is back in the coaching game after nine years in the Monday Night Football booth, and longer than that than since he was Raiders’ head coach the first time, with a 10-year contract and plenty of buzz attached as the franchise nears a move to Las Vegas. Gruden’s primary task is to get quarterback Derek Carr back on track, and thus far Carr saying the right things and he’s almost starting to sound like Gruden.
Exactly how the Raiders will do under Gruden this year and going forward is unclear, and there’s some chance it goes very badly. But it will be interesting to follow at least, and right now there’s nothing but excitement for Gruden’s return to Oakland.

Philadelphia Eagles – The return of Carson Wentz

If it’s possible for a defending Super Bowl champion to be better in any area during a follow-up season, the Eagles are in line to get there when Wentz takes his job back from Foles.
It’s hard to repeat as Super Bowl champions, and the Eagles will catch no one by surprise this year. But Wentz’s fairly quick progress, and eventual return to 100 percent health, is the leading source of excitement for Eagles’ fans this year.

Pittsburgh Steelers – A new “Slash”?

Expectations are very high once again in Pittsburgh this year, with one more season as currently constructed with all key players (assuming Le’Veon Bell shows up) in place. With so few changes this offseason, finding a source of real excitement for the 2108 season is a little tough.
Enter Jaylen Samuels, a rookie fifth-round pick out of North Carolina State. He is technically listed as a running back now, as he was announced at the draft. But he was a multi-position threat in college, with time as a tight end, a wide receiver and a running back. As a senior last year he had 75 receptions, 12 rushing touchdowns (16 total touchdowns) while accounting for exactly 1,000 yards from scrimmage. He also averaged 23.7 yards per kickoff return in some spot duty last year.
Samuels has a chance to take over as Pittsburgh’s lead back in 2019, assuming Bell’s inevitable exit upon hitting unrestricted free agency. But for this year, he’s shaping up to be a unique weapon who can be lined up all over the field. Whenever Samuels gets his hands on the ball, opposing defense will be holding their breath.

San Francisco 49ers – A full season with Jimmy G

With a 1-10 record at Thanksgiving, it would have been a reasonable plan for the 49ers to keep Jimmy Garoppollo on ice until this year. But they dusted off their big trade acquisition in Week 12 against the Seattle Seahawks, and stuck with him for the rest of the season.
The hype train is running downhill with practically brakes regarding the 49ers right now, and the team cemented its commitment to Garoppolo with a big contract this offseason. Delivering fully on that hype will be a tough task, but the franchise is on the rise again after the dismal post-Jim Harbaugh days.
Garoppolo will not maintain his undefeated record as an NFL starter for a lot longer (7-0 right now). But an upcoming full season with him as the quarterback is the clear leading reason for excitement in the 49ers’ universe heading into the 2018 campaign.

Seattle Seahawks – A new era, led by a critical trio

Richard Sherman? Cut, signed with the 49ers. Michael Bennett? Traded to the Eagles. Kam Chancellor and Cliff Avril? Forced into retirement by neck injuries. Jimmy Graham? Signed with the Packers. Earl Thomas? Holding out, and openly looking to be traded without a contract extension. So it’s a new era in Seattle, for better or worse.
After back-to-back Super Bowl trips, and nearly two wins, the Seahawks have faced the harsh reality that comes when you have to pay a quarterback market value based on his talent. Keeping everyone, particularly the best players on a once-vaunted defense, has slowly become impossible and that piper has been fully paid now.
A top-notch coach, general manager and quarterback are a trio that can keep a franchise afloat through uncertainty. No matter what you think of Carroll’s schtick, and Wilson’s too to some degree, the Seahawks have those three key pieces in place. And that’s enough to create excitement, and retain hope, for the 2018 season

Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Ronald Jones

Last year’s preseason “Hard Knocks” hype dissolved into a 5-11 record for the Buccaneers last year, and things aren’t off to a great start this year with Jameis Winston starting the season on a three-game suspension.
In some ways, Tampa Bay seems to be on a fast track to a worse record than last year. That would almost surely be followed by a new head coach, a new general manager and a new starting quarterback going forward starting in 2019. But we’re talking about this year here, and there are some glimmers of hope and excitement.
With an easy path to a difference-making role right out of the gate, and Ryan Fitzpatrick starting under center for at least three games, Jones’ potential is something the Buccaneers can latch onto and be excited about for the coming season.
Tennessee Titans – Marcus Mariota and an actual offensive mind
Thankfully for Mariota, Mike Mularkey’s “exotic smash mouth” offense is finally gone. He completed 62 percent of his passes last year, which was in line with the marks he set in his first two seasons, but he set clear career-lows in yards per attempt (7.1), touchdown rate (2.9 percent) and passer rating (79.3) with a negative touchdown-to-interception ratio (13-15).
Coming in as head coach is Mike Vrabel, with Matt LaFleur taking over as offensive coordinator. This should help him be effective.
Hints of a faster pace, more read-option and/or run-pass option and more play action should all suit Mariota just fine. He was one of the better quarterback in the NFL off play-action last year, and a faster pace with option plays where his legs can be an asset will bring back memories of the offense he ran at Oregon.

Tennessee Titans – Marcus Mariota and an actual offensive mind

Thankfully for Mariota, Mike Mularkey’s “exotic smash mouth” offense is finally gone. He completed 62 percent of his passes last year, which was in line with the marks he set in his first two seasons, but he set clear career-lows in yards per attempt (7.1), touchdown rate (2.9 percent) and passer rating (79.3) with a negative touchdown-to-interception ratio (13-15).
Coming in as head coach is Mike Vrabel, with Matt LaFleur taking over as offensive coordinator. This should help him be effective.
Hints of a faster pace, more read-option and/or run-pass option and more play action should all suit Mariota just fine. He was one of the better quarterback in the NFL off play-action last year, and a faster pace with option plays where his legs can be an asset will bring back memories of the offense he ran at Oregon.

Washington Redskins – Mr. Smith comes to Washington

After never committing to Kirk Cousins, through two years of the franchise tag dance and public signs of disrespect, the Redskins finally let him go in free agency and traded for Alex Smith. Most of the drama related to Cousins came from the team’s end, but removing it from the equation should be a good thing.
Smith had the best season of his career for the Chiefs last year, with career-highs in passing yards (4,042), touchdowns (26), passer rating (104.7), yards per attempt (8.0), yards per completion (11.9) and interception rate (1.0 percent). In a big shift from his previous mode as a check-down king, Smith also led the NFL in passer rating on 20-plus yard throws last year.

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